Twenty-two years ago, my wife handed me a VHS tape of A Great Day in Harlem and insisted I watch it — a documentary film about the legendary photo shoot captured by Art Kane for Esquire magazine. Some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time assembled on a stoop on 126th Street. I brought the video to my boss at the time, Dennis Page, and said, “Yo, you know about this movie?”
“I’d love to check it out, but I do know of the shoot,” he said.
“Pamela and I think we should replicate it for our first cover of XXL.” At this stage, XXL was a brochure that we had distributed to promote the premiere issue, which would ultimately launch in 1997.
“I like it, Jonny, but not for a first issue. Maybe down the road when we get momentum,” Page said. It was too early.
As Sheena Lester captured in her RESPECT. essay entitled “The Game Changer,” it would require her fire and a dream team (and a dream) to make it happen. So “issue No. 7 it was,” as she states in her incredible story.
Twenty years ago, on September 29, I put my Rolleiflex camera in my shoulder bag and took the train up to 126th Street to meet photographer Gordon Parks on the block, where he would capture history. While the XXL, Slam and Honey staffs were properly greeting the rap artists at the church on the corner — O.G.s and new school — I spent the day with Gordon for what would become one of my greatest life moments. I was always drawn to journalists and photographers. In my era, they were the documentarians of the golden age of hip-hop journalism: The Source, Vibe, Rap Pages, Ego Trip, On the Go, Stress, 4080 and, of course, XXL … those were the days, man.
Gordon sat in a metal fold-up chair most of the afternoon taking in his surroundings, which included the three brownstones that would become legendary, along with the almost 200 rap artists who attended — and the middle brownstone had already made history several decades earlier with Art Kane. At one point I crossed the street, which was closed off with permits, took out my camera and started shooting a family on the block … and then Gordon.
Later in the afternoon, the staff and all the rappers exited the church and walked down the block. It was an incredible scene seeing DJ Kool Herc and Russell Simmons pass back and forth the bullhorn to calm the crowd so Gordon could get the shot in time. It was a powerful and cerebral moment watching the sun trying to shut down the shoot as Gordon was waiting to press the shutter button. He got the shot and made history.
As the dozens and dozens of rap talent dispersed from the stoops, I took out my Rolleiflex again — focusing, shooting, winding and ultimately going through 10 rolls of film — all inspired by Mr. Parks. There was no digital spray-and-pray in 1998; I had to work for these shots. I brought the film to Carroll Labs and ordered some contacts. They appeared to be overexposed, so I tossed them in a drawer.
One week after the shoot, I received a package from Gordon — the only original photo print I believe exists of the shoot (that Gordon himself developed). He wrote on the photo: “To Jonathan, From Gordon.” It still hangs in my home office as a reminder of this great day.
RESPECT., which I founded almost a decade ago, was the first-ever magazine to celebrate the photographers who documented hip-hop culture. Its logo ends with a period (which Nike bit for its Jeter line, along with our name) for emphasis. When RESPECT. published Lester’s “The Game Changer” essay several weeks ago, we did not have the time to secure rights to any images taken by other photographers that day, and 48 hours into deadline to post the essay, I remembered those negatives … and found them. I had them scanned and, to my delight, they were exactly what I recalled capturing.
It is absolutely incredible witnessing Gordon’s photo reuniting people 20 years later in a celebration. Many people who were a part of the epic event may not be there, but we know what it means to them. Lesley Pitts, G-d rest her soul, will be there in spirit. She was a driving force who was key to getting the talent to come to 126th for that great day.
I’ve learned first hand: Most great work is that which can last the test of time — which can only be realized later in one’s career. Sheena Lester, Fab 5 Freddy, Datwon Thomas, Michael Gonzales, Tony Gervino, Miles Marshall Lewis, Biff Warren, Dennis Page, Robert “Scoop” Jackson, Larry “Blackspot” Hester.
RIP Gordon & Lesley.
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